What’s happening in America might be a glimpse of our own future

Malta has become a country where ‘black lives’ demonstrably ‘matter less’… not merely because of Lassana’s murder but because there is a lot more to ‘racism’ than occasionally murdering people on the basis of their skin colour.

Earlier this week, the Aditus Foundation released a statement to coincide with the mass-riots that have convulsed the USA since the murder of George Floyd.

It is short enough to reproduce in full here: “If you are shocked at the protests in the US and worldwide, take a moment to bring it home. Remember that in 2019, Lassana Cisse was killed in Ħal Far. Remember that two soldiers, duty-bound to protect the nation (all of it), remain charged with his murder. Remember that the best we could do as a nation was order an internal inquiry. Remember that in 2020, the inquiry by the AFM about the AFM found no sign of racism in the AFM…”

Predictably, the statement attracted the usual barrage of criticism that invariably accompanies articles about race in Malta; but while most of the comments could easily be dismissed as mindless Internet trolling… there was a general, recurring line of argument that I find slightly harder to ignore.

Loosely translated, it would read something like: ‘Don’t mix up lettuce with flatulence’. A slightly longer version might include the many, many cultural and historical differences between our own country and the United States of America… where the murder of George Floyd was but the latest incident, in a history of violent race-relationships going back around 400 years.

Speaking only for myself, I must admit that I can more or less understand that sentiment. My own reaction to Floyd’s murder was not exactly to make an instant comparison with the murder of Lassana Cisse in 2019: partly because it just didn’t occur to me… but partly also because I, too, see a few differences between those two scenarios.

For instance: while there can be no real doubt that the latest wave of race-related violence in the US was triggered by the death of George Floyd… it is by no means limited to that one murder alone. Clearly, Floyd’s murder – and even more poignantly, his last words: ‘I can’t breathe’ – have come to embody something much more pervasive and deep-rooted: a nationwide sense of frustration and exasperation, if you like, at a system of institutionalised racism and violence that just doesn’t seem to ever change at all.   

From this perspective, a better (though perhaps also controversial) analogy might be the case of Muhammed Bouazizi: the Tunisian street vendor whose desperate act of self-immolation, in December 2010, ignited a spark that would eventually topple autocratic regimes across the Arab world.

The underlying issues may have been very different indeed; but citizens of Tunisia – and later Egypt, and then all the other countries caught up in the ensuing conflagration – would no doubt have seen, in Bouazizi’s death, a correlative for countless other injustices they may have experienced themselves… and which, in turn, were all indicative of a deeper, systemic – as opposed to individual – malaise.

Can any of this really be applied to the case of Lassana Cisse? As I already said, my own initial gut reaction was: ‘no, it can’t’. For even if it is true that the two men charged with his murder are both members of the AFM – another institution, alongside the police, that we rely on to protect us from such crimes – the murder itself was more in the nature of a drive-by shooting.

Naturally, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the implications. (In a sense, it may even aggravate them: for let’s face it… Lassana Cisse was murdered at random, just for being black. As such, the bullet that killed him may just as well have been aimed at all people of colour, everywhere.)

But – unlike the Floyd case, which can be slotted into an entire history of institutionalised, racially-motivated crime – it remains a one-off, isolated case… indicative, perhaps, of a wider systemic problem; but not, in and of itself, an indictment of the entire system.

Then again, however… that was just my initial reaction, upon reading the Aditus statement. Ever since, however, I have been increasingly troubled by a gnawing doubt. Yes, it is true that the comparison may be flawed, in purely superficial terms; but that may also be simply because Malta has yet to go through the full course of America’s 400-year history of racism.

To put that another way: while George Floyd represented the umpteenth victim of America’s troubled history of race-relations… Lassana Cisse may well have been our first; possibly even the first of many.

And even if it wasn’t a crime directly perpetrated by ‘the system’… shades of the same malevolence that motivated it can indeed be seen in various other aspects of our own institutionalised approach to precisely the same race-relations issue.

As such, even my own earlier comment – to the effect that the history of Malta and the USA cannot realistically be compared – needs to be qualified. Perhaps it is true that no direct comparison can realistically be made… today. But in 10 years’ time? Fifty years’ time? Into the next century, and beyond…?

With that shift of perspective, another, much more disturbing thought comes to mind. George Floyd’s murder marks the culmination of a dehumanising process that can trace its earliest origins all the way back to 1691, with the first arrival of African slaves to the Americas.

And while the full history of our own race-relations would take us back much further in time… the issues underpinning today’s scenario (namely, the mass immigration of African asylum seekers by boat) can only realistically be traced the very late 1990s, at the earliest.

This also means that in just 20 years, we went from being a country with hardly any ethnic variety at all… to a country where ‘being black’ could (and in at least one case, did) get you shot dead in the street.

And much as I hate to have to add this: we have also become a country where ‘black lives’ demonstrably ‘matter less’… not merely because Lassana Cisse’s murder did not arouse as much outrage as it really should have, all things considered; but also because there is a lot more to ‘racism’ than occasionally murdering people on the basis of their skin colour.

There is also the question of how we treat those people in all other spheres, too. And looking back over those same two decades… the supposed ‘differences’ between our own collective experience, and that of the American people, start becoming harder to spot.

This, for instance, is a small snippet from an article entitled ‘A Timeline of Black American Milestones’ (widely circulated in the wake of Floyd’s murder): “As white southerners gradually re-established civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866, they enacted a series of laws known as the black codes, which were designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labour force…”

The precise circumstances may not tally perfectly – there is, after all, nothing comparable to the ‘black codes’ actually written into our own legislation – but it could still very easily be argued that Malta’s general immigration policy, over the past 20 years, has likewise been “designed to restrict [‘irregular migrants’/asylum seekers’] activity and ensure their availability as a labour force…”

Elsewhere, almost every one of the ‘milestones’ in that article seems to correspond with one aspect or another of our own (much shorter) history of co-existence with other races/ethnicities. Just consider how much of our institutionalised response to migration has – deliberately or otherwise – served to dehumanise those people; just as slavery did in America.

Ever since the early 2000s, successive Maltese governments have always adopted the same policy of blanket, arbitrary and – in the beginning, at least – indefinite detention of all migrants arriving by boat.

There have, admittedly, been improvements in the conditions of detention since those early days: even if they were mostly imposed on (visibly reluctant) Maltese governments by entities such as the UN’s Committee For the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment.

To this day, however, the same general policy is still in place: and still resulting in sporadic protests/hunger strikes/riots within closed detention centres. Coupled with the ghettoisation caused by Malta’s ‘Open Centre’ policies… not to mention an often undisguised anti-migrant bias in news reporting (for instance, that notorious TVM bulletin which compared the latest migrant arrivals to an ‘infestation of jellyfish’), the result is that most people’s perception of African migrants is pre-emptively tinged with a veneer of criminality: whether or not they themselves are ‘racist’, in any real sense of the word.

So where those early African-American slaves may have been chained together by the neck or ankle, and sold off at public auctions like chattels… our own resident population of Africans is most commonly portrayed as being either handcuffed, or rattling the wire-netting fence of a maximum-security prison.

And that’s before we even get to the part where the government of Malta has now adopted a whole new policy of detaining migrants out of sea, just beyond the limits of our territorial waters… thus effectively realising Norman Lowell’s promise, way back in 2005, to ‘stop them at 14 miles’ (resulting, if you’ll remember, in criminal charges against Lowell for ‘hate speech’).

Much more to the point, however: the single most glaring similarity with 19th century America is that our resident African population is meanwhile setting down its roots here: just as America’s slave population did all those centuries ago. They are now working here; paying taxes here; having children here… and those children are in turn up growing up here; going to school here; planning to get married here, and have children of their own, and so on ad infinitum.

How long, then, before the rest of the country (starting with government, and policy-makers across the board) finally comes round to accepting this as a new reality that must perforce – regardless of any individual opinion – be accommodated? And has anyone even started contemplating the price we might all have to pay, for repeating so many of the mistakes made by the USA over the course of the past 400 years?

If not, I’d suggest we start paying closer attention to what is currently happening in America. It may well be a glimpse of our own, not-so distant future…